At Dorothy Boulding Ferebee's feet is the claret Persian rug her great-grandparents received in 1848 from their Richmond slavemaster. "The station owner put John and Cornelia Hiawatha Ruffin, their eight children, this rug and most of the chairs in this room into a wagon," says Dr. Ferebee quickly, her raspy voice pealing through her living room.
"He drove them to Boston, only driving at night, for their safety. It took two months." With the last remark, she sits up straight, proudly, as jubilant as her ancestors must have felt at their journey's completion. "And now when I get tired. I just come in here and look at my great-grandmother's furniture. I just look," says Ferebee.
But her never-idle eyes, now glancing over the ornately carved rose love seat and canary slipper chairs, and her reputation as a physician and community activist believe that wistful sigh.
"Dorothy Ferebee is one of almost extinct breed. She is an elegant lady, a lady with a social consciousness who will still make house calls on Sheridan Road SE. That, in itself, is remarkable," says Louise D. Hutchinson, a Washington historian at the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. "She not only identified the needs of the poor but pricked the consciousness of the white do-good elite. She has opened many doors."
In all of her activities, from the founding of the Southeast Neighborhood House in 1929 through her leadership of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), succeeding the pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune, to the establishment of The Women's Institute (TWI) three years ago, Ferebee has been an advocate of the disadvantaged.
Last night TWI, an outgrowth of the local programs of International Women's Year, which Ferebee headed, honored her at American University, its affiliate institution.
Her persistence is symbolized by her ancestor's rug, a part of her life that never leaves her modest, two-story home in Northeast. She moves slowly to a love seat, crosses her legs at the ankles and pulls her skirt over her knees.
"Well, in our family there was never a question of couldn't. Before me there were eight lawyers - all I heard at the table was 'yor honor I object,' or 'answer the question, yes or no,' Yet all my life I wanted to be a doctor. I would nurse and rub the birds that fell out of trees, the dog that lost a flight. My grandmother would say, 'Do you need water, dolly?' and then say to my mother, 'she's going to make a fine doctor.' They weren't professional women but they gave me marvelous encouragement," says Ferebee, describing that incentive in sharp, Bostonian tones.
Ferebee, born in 1898, greq up on Boston's fashionable Beacon Hill one of three children of a well-known family. The family pillar, her great-uncle George L. Ruffin, was the first black graduate of Harvard Law School in 1869 and 20 years later became the state's first black judge.
In the mid-20s, after graduating from Simmons College and Tufts University medical school, she came to old Freeman's Hospital for her internship. Fifty years ago she set up her first practice in a poor, old section of Capitol Hill, often driving her own patients across town to Freedman's because the ambulances wouldn't serve the neighborhood.
Along with her practice, she worked for 27 years as the medical director of Howard University's student health service. A minuscule budget and jealousy were the problems there. "The men always wanted that job and whenever I would get a consultation job overseas, then the jealousies would start. But President Mordecai Johnson said, 'Don't you let it bother you.'
"But of course there was a lot of eyebrow lifting and commotion," says Ferebee. "Once I was in North Africa and a friend wrote that some doctor was taking over my job, I came back to Howard unannounced, straigthened things out, and got right back on the plane." Even now her smugness sears.
Yet, a life of activity, especially when traditional molds are being broken, is never without sacrifice. Her marriage broke up over 30 years ago when her husband also a physician, wanted her to look on her medical and civic work as an avocation, not a career.
"Both my parents are strong-willed. I guess that's the reason they didn't make it," says her son, Clyde Thurston Ferebee, 46, a dentist here. "I have never heard her complain about anything, not even the responsibility of two children alone. And she has never said a derogatory word about my father." His twin sister, Dorothy, died at age 18 from the flu. "It was a terrible blow, she was gone in two days," says Ferebee quietly.
She turns to the photographs on her lap. In one, her father, Benjamin, who worked as a superintendent with the Railroad Mail Service, is posing with his choir at Hampton Institute. And then she turns over the funeral program of her brother, Ruffin Ferebee, an attorney, who died two years ago.
"He was a true inspiration. Ruffin used to stand on a soapbox in the kitchen and recite all the Psalms, he learned all 150 by age 17. I tried to beat him by starting at the back with No. 150," says Ferebee."One day he asked me who I was going to help in life. I said, the poor, the old, the lonely, the young, the sick, the homeless and hungry, and the disabled. He made up a word, polyshod," and she starts spelling it out. "Well, I forget what the second (o) means but that has been my formula."
Even as a young woman, treating the elderly had a certain poignancy. But helping a 9-year-old has given her her greatest pleasure. Georgie, whose last name has long been forgotten took his 3-year-old brother to the babysitter each day. One day the babysitter couldn't work, Georgie' mother was across town at her job as a domestic, and the ice box was empty. Georgie stole a bottle of milk from a neighbor's porch and ended up in the Precinct.
"I went down and got him and paid for the milk and right then decided we needed a place for black children of working mothers," says Ferebee, recalling this 1929 incident. Non of the area's playgrounds or recreation centers were opened to blacks.
Bit by bit she collected some donations and then appealed to the then all-white Friendship House board for a facility nearby. "Their first reaction was 'Do you mean you want black children running wild around here?' They told me hubcaps would be stolen, all sorts of wrongdoing. And I explained to them the need and they said I was lecturing. I said no. I am just telling you the facts. Finally one woman said yes, we will help - so did the old Community Chest - and we opened Southeast Neighborhood House at 301 G St. SE," says Ferebee.
For seven summers, in the worst years of the Depression, Ferebee directed a health project in rural Mississippi. With a few co-workers from the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, she drove to Holmes and Bolivar counties in her Grand Page. Unpaved roads, floorless shacks and malnutrition faced the group everywhere they turned.
"The children suffered so much, from anemia, diarrhea and low blood. The older people had high blood and malnutrition. The diet consisted of meal, meat and molasses and a lot of fat," says Ferebee, slightly appalled. With the help of another sorority sister, Ella Moran, they set up a stove outside and cooked dried fruit, prunes, raisins and rice. The project eventually grew into the Taborian Hospital, now the Mound Bayou Hospital.
"The conditions down there have improved greatly, but now the hospital is in poor financial shape," says Ferebee, who took a group of African and Caribbean women there in 1975 right after she broke her ankle at the Women's Conference in Mexico City. "She refused to go to the doctor and never slowed down," says Nan Frederick, an AID program analyst. "On occasion she would lift her feet up on the bus. When we finally got her to the hospital, she rejected the crutches and came out of the hospital waving them."
Despite the sedentary sighs and serious heart trouble, Ferebee hasn't stopped barreling. In her living room are medical journals, unread for years, and some of her daughter's dolls. But no plaques, no citations. Why? "I tried not to let any of this ever go to my head," she says. "Let me tell you what Aunt Josephine did." Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, the wife of Massachusetts' first black judge, organized the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. When she was offered the first presidency, she said no.
"She stood there with her hat, the feather wrapped around her ear, and she said, 'I cannot accept. Because I am not going to have you ladies saying I called this meeting together so I could be president.' She didn't want to hurt any one's feelings, she didn't want to be beating her drum," says Ferebee. The love seat of her ancestors is now piled with old photographs and note books, and she says sedately, "That's why I have been satisfied with whatever my role has been."